Holden Caulfield may have softened juvenile angst with the assurance that even if you are a misfit you are somehow above it all. Then perhaps at 14 or 15 you discover On the Road and it explodes in your head like Gregory Corso’s “Bomb,” a poem shaped like a bomb that speaks to the conformity of the Cold War years and meaningless drills one’s hopelessly square teachers lead every Friday afternoon.
You may have so internalized the spirit of Sal Paradise, and especially Dean Moriarty, that you and your buddy one day split from your conservative white suburb and hitchhike up to San Francisco where a favorite aunt in Marin County lets you lay down your sleeping bags and even loans you her car to get into the city to soak up the vibes in North Beach (Haight Ashbury hadn’t been discovered yet), buy a baguette and block of cheese at an Italian deli, pay a bum a quarter to buy you a jug of Red Mountain Burgundy, and hang out in Washington Square.
The main deal, though, is getting to City Lights book store where it all began—vainly hoping to get a glimpse of Ginsberg or Corso, or at least Ferlinghetti himself. Of course not knowing what to say if you do encounter one of your heroes.
But the years pile on—the hippies replace the beats—and you go on to college. And after having read the poets who were inspired by Whitman, Keats, and Wordsworth you actually study Whitman, Keats, and Wordsworth— while informally keeping up with your childhood idols.
You hear the shocking news of Kerouac’s death while walking with a girlfriend across the quad. It doesn’t register to a callow freshman just how young the Beat icon was nor what a wasted life he actually lived—only that the man is gone.
Road was, after all, life affirming, and in its way so was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl because it was a shout out for what poetry could be when stripped of the pieties and strictures of a conformist society. Howl broke down the wall between what an artist was allowed to say and what he had to say. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg were among those who made this happen.
Two new books, and a reissue, sucked me back into that time and all three involve Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who at 96 is nearly the last Beat standing—though he protests that he was never really a Beat so much as an observer, chronicler and publisher of the primary poets and prose writers of the era that roughly started with the end of World War II, and lasted no more than a couple of decades.
I Greet You at the Beginning of A Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg—1955-1997 (City Lights Books: San Francisco), borrows its title from Emerson’s salute to Whitman, and traces a friendship and business partnership from the start of City Lights and Ginsberg’s reading at the 6 Gallery in 1955. The police busted the reading, Ferlinghetti was charged with peddling obscenity, and Howl wasmade forever famous.
The two became lifelong friends and for many Ginsberg became the public face of the Beat movement.
The book covers the trajectory of the relationship with helpful notes by editor Bill Morgan that fill Ginsberg’s Zelig-like public appearances at Vietnam protests, international writer symposiums, love-ins. In a letter dated February 6, 1964, he writes: “Boy I’m running round like a butterfly—not much poetry.” And month later: “I’m up to ears in work appointments telephoning, politics. get no writing done [sic]…”
If Ferlinghetti was ever an impatient editor-publisher there is little evidence of it here. Early on (October 24, 1959) he tells Ginsberg: “Take your time on new book manuscript—doesn’t matter if we’re late getting it out—the sooner the better, of course, but don’t rush it….”
A recurring theme, however, is Ginsberg’s desire to sign with a bigger East Coast publisher, one like Grove Press or even Knopf, with a wider distribution network than City Lights. More than once he bemoans the fact that only a handful of shops in New York carry his books. But in the end, he stays with City Lights for most of his career.
In 1973 The Fall of America won the National Book Award for Poetry—a tremendous accolade for both poet and publisher.
Ferlinghetti the publisher, Ferlinghetti the friend, and Ferlinghetti the writer are sometimes contorted in the relationship. While the publisher serves as banker, coach and promoter to the younger Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti complains that Ginsberg never comments on his own work. He sends his poem “The Old Italians Dying” to Ginsberg (January 1977), and perhaps predictably, takes offense with Ginsberg’s apparently heavy-handed editing. “You’ve made that passage a good poem in your own voice….” There was repetition, Ferlinghetti protests, because the poem was meant to be read out loud.
What makes this an essential book is that, unlike many books of letters, we mostly get both sides of the correspondence. It ends with Ferlinghetti’s tribute “Allen Ginsberg Dying”: “It’s in all the papers/It’s on the evening news/A great poet is dying/But his voice/won’t die/His voice is on the land….”
In Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals—1960-2010 (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. Editors: Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson) we get a glimpse into the things that have mattered in Ferlinghetti’s life, as well as some of his insight into the writers of his circle.
While visiting Kerouac in New York in April of 1960 he writes: “Well Jack has nothing to do with Beat or beatnik except in the minds of thousands who read On the Road thinking he’s some sort of crazy wild rebel whereas he’s just a ‘home boy’ from little ol’ Lowell and certainly no rebel.” Of course myths often subsume and outlive their subjects.
Ezra Pound suffered from a public image of his own making. But he was revered by poets of the mid-20th century. In 1965 Ferlinghetti goes to a Pound reading in Spoleto, Italy, and he is profoundly moved: “The voice knocked me down, so soft, so thin, so frail…. I was surprised to see a single tear drop on my knee. The thin indomitable voice went on…. I went blind from...weeping.”
In a fascinating exchange in Moscow in 1967 with Zoja Voznesensky, wife of poet Andrei, she tells him that Ginsberg’s work is more concerned with the interior world while his addresses the outside. Through an interpreter Ferlinghetti understands her to say that the interior is “more important than the exterior…. Later I reflected on that, if she knew Allen better, she might realize that it was Allen who is in fact the extrovert, I the introvert….” Perhaps this is more loaded with meaning than Ferlinghetti imagines. Is it because he is an introvert that his poems seem less personal?
In the end, one wonders if both writers might have left richer legacies had they devoted more time to their poetry and less to public life. But what they have left us is a rich treasure.
City Lights released this past fall a 60th anniversary edition of the book that launched Ferlingetti as a poet: Pictures of the Gone World.
In Poem 26 he writes:
Reading Yeats I do not think
of Arcady and of its woods which Yeats thought dead I think instead of all the gone faces getting off at midtown places with their hats and their jobs and of that lost book I had with its blue cover and its white inside where a pencilhand had written HORSEMAN, PASS BY!
With the last words the epitaph from Yeats’s tombstone Ferlinghetti may reflect on his own mortality, the death of nearly everyone who he supported as a colleague and publisher, and on the future of books and bookstores. Perhaps there is something in the human spirit that will always make poetry.
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